Day 104: Torres del Paine

Sun. 25th November 2012

Torres del Paine - The Blue TowersWe have very little idea what is in store for us today. We have been told that the ‘must do’ activity when in Puerto Natales is to go to Torres del Paine. We know that there are some big rocks and a national park there, but most of the guides that we have read assume that you will be doing ‘the W’ – a 4 day hike – or similar ‘what-carry-my-own-tent-you-have-to-be-joking’ activity. The advantage of booking a full-day tour with our landlady is that it was dead easy to set up. The disadvantage is that we have no brochure and only a limited understanding of the verbal description provided – so, we are taking a bit on trust.

Lago Pehoe - the torres in the backgroundAs it turns out, we did a big semi-circle (NE to SW) around the very distinctive peaks of the Torres del Paine (Blue Towers) and not only got some great views of the peaks but also of some of the stunning scenery nearby.  You can see in some of the photos that the rocks have a thick layer of lighter rock sandwiched between darker layers. Apparently, the lighter rock is granite that was ‘injected’ as magma in between layers of sedimentary rock before it all was eroded by glaciers during the last ice age. The sheer vertical sides of the towers make for a very impressive sight from any angle.

The road less travelledWe start by headingout of town, along the coast and we can see that the ferry for Puerto Montt is in the harbour. This, along with the coastline (and the temperature) brings back memories of Norway. It is around 130km to Torres del Paine, so we have a couple of hours drive ahead of us. Fortunately, the road is relatively flat and straight (at least at first), and we can see the mountains getting closer and closer.

Lago Sarmiento - blue lake, blue skyOur first stop is at Lago Sarmiento. The water is a bright blue colour, and the lake is ringed with a white shore. A noticeboard by the lookout point helpfully explains (in English as well as Spanish) that the colour comes from the blue-green algae that use cyano-bacteria for photosynthesis and that the white deposit is from precipitated calcium that is a by-product of this photosynthesis. Whatever the explanation, the result is a spectacular view. Furthermore, white caps on the waves whipped up by the wind mirror the white caps on the mountains that surround us.

What a landscapeGuanacosA little further on we see Guanacos and Rheas wandering on the nearby hills and by the road. We even get to see a new-born Guanaco, barely an hour old, struggling to find its feet. Like the mountains, these are a reminder of some of the sights from a couple of months ago when we were at the other end of the Andes. That does seem a long time ago now!

Above the Salto Grande waterfallWe then come to Laguna Amarga, which is grey in contrast with the vivid blue of Lago Sarmiento. A little further on, and inside the national park is the Salto Grande (Large Waterfall). The driver warns us about the wind and this is reinforced by signs by the path. Sure enough it is absolutely howling here – it would be enough in the UK to get Michael Fish out! The mix of the rainbow in the spray of the falls; the water tumbling over the rocks; the bright blue sky and the ever present mountains make for an incredible spectacle. We know understand why people rave about this place – but we still don’t fancy 4 days trekking (or more) carrying our own camping kit!

A bit windyWe have our picnic lunch at tables by the side of Lago Pehoe. We went for the DIY option for our picnic this time getting some sliced ham and bread rolls from the supermarket yesterday – much cheaper, but no salad or mayonnaise. In the sun, and sheltered from the wind, it is nice and warm – but not so much when the other way round.

Icebergs in Lago GreyBefore each stop, our driver tells us the name of the place – Lago Grey in this case – and how much time we have – but doesn’t provide any details as to what we will see. In some cases, there are noticeboards by the viewpoint to explain but not this time. So, we were surprised after walking along a forest path to come to the shore and find icebergs floating in the lake. The map provided by the park tells us that Grey Glacier is at the end of the lake and as we walk along the shore and out along a promontory, looking down the length of the lake we can see the wall of the glacier. It was quite a trek from the car park out to the promontory and, particularly with the gravel on the beach being hard going, our legs definitely feel like they have been working.

10,000 year old creature - and a MilodonIt is then time to head back towards Puerto Natales, stopping on the way at the Cueva del Milodon. The Milodon was a large mamalian herbivore that became extinct about 10,000 years ago (or, if you are a creationist, never existed). It seems to have become the symbol of Puerto Natales (see Janet’s post yesterday). It cost CL$4,000 (£6) to get in to the park and in hindsight wasn’t really value for the time that we were able to spend there – we only saw the big cave (won’t bore you with more geology!) and the statue replica of the milodon. There are walks that you can do to see more in the park and our advice would be either to take the time and do the walks or don’t bother stopping and make do with the statue on the edge of town.

As I write this up with the map of the park laid out beside me, it is clear that we saw a little bit of quite a number of sights. As always it is a compromise, and we could have hired a car and seen much the same things or just taken a public bus here and walked one of the shorter trails (e.g. from the park entrance to the base of the towers). Time, as ever, was our enemy – both time to plan and time to do all of the things that we would like to. So, this prepackaged tour covering the highlights was a good choice for us. We have had another good day with lots of photos taken and some great memories of a unique place.

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